By Matt Johnson

NFL Divisional Round: No.3 Green Bay Packers @ No.2 San Francisco 49ers

Location: Candlestick Park, San Francisco, California

Date: January 12th, 2013 8 PM EST

Preview:

This is the battle everyone was hoping for when the season started, it started in Week 1 when the 49ers edged out Green Bay in Lambeau 30-22. Now just  18 weeks later Packers QB Aaron Rodgers returns home to the city that passed on him in 2005. Now for the first time in his career he will head home to seek out his revenge and show everyone that he still carries that chip on his shoulder. It will be the biggest storyline this week, with a trip to the NFC Championship Game on the line.

Green Bay is coming off a wildcard win over the Minnesota Vikings, although they weren’t playing at their best. After taking an early 17-3 lead heading into halftime but struggled in the 2nd half. Green Bay scored on their first possession in the 2nd half but was shutout the rest of the game, as they failed to convert on 3rd down on every drive. Fortunately for the Packers what they can take away from the game is their entire receiving core is healthy and will be ready to go against the 49ers. The question will be how will the 49ers running game and offensive line stand up against the stout 49ers defense. Green Bay has given up over 50 sacks this year, many of those coming in key situations. There is no question Aaron Rodgers can win this game with his arm, but that may not be enough if the Packers defense struggles continue into next week.

While Green Bay is all about the passing game, the 49ers are almost polar opposites from their opponent. San Francisco uses a ground and pound attack mixed in with a variety of passes for QB Colin Kaepernick. While Kaepernick may still be developing with his accuracy he has shown he can get into a shootout with Tom Brady and he came out victorious. What San Francisco is recognized for though is their defense. Led by Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman the 49ers defense does everything you could ask for. They can get after the QB with just a four man rush, have an elite pass rusher in Aldon Smith, and are the best when it comes to tackling. They aren’t afraid to hit you in the mouth, but they still play it safe when they need to. While they have struggled at times against the run, and did allow a 28 point comeback from the Patriots, they are still an elite unit. If San Francisco can play like they did in the first half against New England I have no doubt they can win, but if that ugly side of them shows up Green Bay won’t hesitate to bury them.

Keys to the Game:

Green Bay Packers:

1.) Protect Aaron Rodgers

-If there is one thing the Packers continue to struggle with on offense, it has to be protecting their franchise QB. Aaron Rodgers was sacked an astonishing 51 times this season. While several of these sacks can be credited to Rodgers for not getting rid of the football, there have also been times when he runs away from a sack and picks up a first down. Now the Packers will be in for an even bigger challenge when they head to San Francisco, 49ers OLB Aldon Smith with 9.5 sacks and will be brought down to blitz early in the game. The key battle to watch will be Packers rookie RT Don Barcla who has been abused by defensive linemen the past 3 weeks. If the offensive line can give Rodgers some time to throw he can find holes in the 49ers secondary, but if the 49ers can get after him this game could get out of hand.

2.) Keep Colin Kaepernick in the Pocket

When the Packers played the 49ers in Week 1 they didn’t have to worry about Alex Smith scrambling out of the pocket if a play broke down. Now as they prepare for the 49ers they will face a different beast in Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick was named the 49ers starting QB in November and literally ran away with it. While Kaepernick continues to grow as a passer it is his speed that makes him nearly impossible to stop for opposing defenses. Green Bay did play a speedy QB on Saturday in Joe Webb, but Webb couldn’t throw the ball.  If Green Bay wants a shot at the NFC Championship Game they have to keep Colin Kaepernick in the pocket and make him beat their defense with his arm instead of his legs. If Green Bay can force the young QB into mistakes they have a great chance to win.

3.) Establish a Running Game:

While Green Bay not have  a great running back, the trio of RB DuJuan Harris, Ryan Grant and FB John Kuhn is beginning to look like just what they need to make another Super Bowl run. Harris went from failed car salesman to Packers savior as he has a nose for the end zone. Not only is Harris effective as a runner he also showed in the wildcard round he can find holes as a receiver. Meanwhile FB John Kuhn continues to serve as a fan favorite in Green Bay, especially after 2 TD’s against the Vikings. Now they will face an even bigger challenge against a 49ers defense that ranked fourth in yards allowed. Green Bay doesn’t need to rely on the run to win, but if they can establish it early and keep the 49ers defense honest it will open up things for Aaron Rodgers in the passing game.

San Francisco 49ers:

1.) Establish the Run Early

One thing the Vikings failed to do in their loss to the Packers on Saturday was let Adrian Peterson roll through the Green Bay defense. Peterson ran for 199 yards the previous week, but was limited to just 99 yards after Minnesota turned to the passing game in the 2nd quarter. Green Bay has been gashed all season by running backs, which will be key to a 49ers victory. Frank Gore was a bulldozer against Green Bay in Week 1 running for 112 yards on 17 carries. If the 49ers can keep picking up first downs via the running game, it will keep Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines and run the clock out. As long as the 49ers can control the clock and hold onto the football, they should win this game.

2.) Put pressure on Rodgers

While Aaron Rodgers may be the best QB in the NFL he plays behind arguably the worst offensive line in football as well. San Francisco already has two of the best pass rushers in the game when it comes to Aldon Smith and Justin Smith. The 49ers will game plan heavily on attacking the right side  of the Packers offensive line, specifically RT Don Barclay. While Green Bay will try to establish screen plays to hold off the blitz, it may not be enough against the 49ers front four. As long as the 49ers can get after Aaron Rodgers, they have a great chance to win on Saturday.

3.) Execute on Special Teams

While San Francisco won the first meeting between the two teams, one area they really struggled in was special teams. Packers WR Randall Cobb returned a punt 75 yards for a score. While Cobb hasn’t returned a punt for a score since he has still been an effective returner and new KR Jeremy Ross has shined as well. If the 49ers give up big plays on special teams it will give Rodgers a short field which is the last thing the 49ers defense needs. Another player fans will be focused on is 49ers K David Akers, who converted just 29 of 42 FG’s this season. During the bye week San Francisco signed former Ravens K Billy Cundiff to compete with Akers if his woes continue. While offense and defense are always the focus in breaking down games, special teams could be the deciding aspect in who goes to the NFC Championship game.

Injury Report:

Green Bay Packers:

RB James Starks (knee): Questionable

WR Randall Cobb (hamstring): Probable

WR Jordy Nelson (knee):  Probable

TE Jermichael Finley (hamstring): Questionable

San Francisco 49ers:

TE Vernon Davis (concussion): Questionable

DT Justin Smith (triceps): Questionable

Prediction:

49ers 31 Packers 24

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Matt Johnson

I am a sports writer entering my first year in college. I am also a aspiring sports radio host.

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